Tag Archives: Mary Gillgannon

A Muse By Any Other Name

By Mary Gillgannon

In a post a couple of months ago, I was discussing the creative process and mentioned my muse “not speaking to me”. Afterwards, I began to think about the concept of a muse, what it means to me and why I think of mine as female.

The word probably originates from the Greek word mosis, referring to desire or wish. In Greek mythology, the muses were nine goddesses, all daughters of Zeus, who were said to have power over inspiration. The term has come to mean someone who has a deep influence on another person’s creative work. Historically, it was most often used by male artists to describe women they loved and made the subject of their work. But nowadays, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to a relationship, person or even an entity. The word can be used simply to describe your own inner source of creativity and inspiration. It’s a tangible term for an intangible process. A way of personalizing and making real something that no one really understands:  how the creative process works.

Being writers, we want to assign words to the process, to find a way to describe it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of metaphorical descriptions. People talk of “dipping into the creative well”, as if there was some sort of subterranean pool in our subconscious that we could drink from. James Joyce wrote that all the real creative work was done by “the nigger in the basement”. A more politically-correct writer, Barbara Samuels/Barbara O’Neal, uses the term “the girls in the basement”, to describe the source of her creative ideas. Another writer friend once described it to me by saying there was a wall separating her from all these wonderful, magical ideas and that once in awhile, she felt she could reach under that wall and pull things out and use them in her writing.

I suppose I see my “muse” or the source of my inspiration and ideas, as being a remnant of my childhood self, the little girl I was before I learned to focus on what I was supposed to focus on, rather than letting my thoughts roam free. That’s probably why I think of my muse as female, because she represents the fanciful, imaginative child I once was, who sang and told herself stories for hours and hours.

I think almost all children are naturally creative. Daydreaming and making up stories is a huge part of how they learn and interact with the world. But the ability to tap into that fluid “anything is possible” outlook gets damaged over time. When a child is chided for daydreaming or simply told to “pay attention” in school or when doing chores, they start forming the habit of focusing on the “real” world, the things they can directly perceive through their senses and through reasoning. Their connection with that fertile, free-flowing part of themselves gets cut off, and gradually what was once a constant rich flow of creative ideas slows to a mere trickle.

Years later, when we decide to take up a creative pursuit, we may find it difficult to access what was once the very essence of our world. Instead of having all sorts of fantastical ideas swirling in our heads, we get trapped in our mundane reality. We suffer from writers’ block. We get stuck and the words won’t come. The well hasn’t run dry, but we no longer have access to it. Instead of a river right beside us, our creativity hides in a deep dark reservoir, buried far below all the layers of the responsibilities, demands and distractions of our lives.

Over and over, I find myself using water metaphors to describe creativity. Perhaps that’s because, like water, creativity and inspiration aren’t something you can grab onto or really contain. It keeps moving and changing, like the process that defines it. My muse is a water sprite, skipping over the waves, glimmering in the sunlight. Sometimes I catch sight of her for long enough to capture a bit of her magic and use it in my work. I wish she wasn’t so elusive and that I was better at creeping up on her so I would have time to really study her. But like a lot of enchanted beings, she remains always on the move and a little out of focus, lost to the all-too-sensible and realistic lens through which my adult self views the world.

An Awkward Confession

By Mary Gillgannon

I’ve been writing historical romance for over twenty years. In the beginning, the genre was also my favorite reading material. I read the best-selling romance authors to find out what magic they worked to rise to the top. I read the “up-and-comings” to see what they offered and get a feel for the direction the market was headed. And I read pretty much anything in my preferred sub-genre, medieval and Viking romances. I once heard that before writing a book in a particular genre, you should read a hundred books of that type. Over the first few years of my writing career, I probably did that.

But gradually I got away from reading historical romance. I discovered historical mysteries, which helped me immerse myself in the world and time period I was writing in and often gave me new ideas for stories that were more unique than the ideas I got from romances. I dabbled in literary fiction, which had been my preferred reading in college and immediately afterwards. Chick lit came along and I ate it up. Fantasy started getting popular and I added it to my reading “oeuvre”. Then, a few years ago, I stumbled onto a contemporary mystery I really liked and started reading them too.

I’m currently writing my fifteenth historical romance, and yet I have to guiltily admit that, except for books written by friends, I haven’t read a historical romance from start to finish in years. I have good intentions. I purchase e-books that sound interesting and download free copies to help other authors get exposure. I order historical romances for the library where I work and sometimes even check them out. But some other book (or books) always seems to be calling me, and I never get far into the romances before I move on.

It doesn’t help that I acquire fiction as part of my job at a public library and read dozens of reviews every month, covering fiction in all sorts of genres. I usually skim the non-fiction reviews, too, adding to my choices. When I check in the new books (to confirm the cataloging is correct, etc.) I set aside the order slips of those I’m interested in. I now have a pile about fifty order slips on my desk. I’d like to read these books, but it seems like there’s always something new and irresistible and I seldom end up going to “the pile”. I guess I’m sort of ADHD when it comes to reading for pleasure.

Lately I’m obsessed with gritty contemporary mysteries set in the British Isles. I could never write stories like these. I don’t have a good feel for contemporary dialogue and as an American, I certainly couldn’t pull off the slang or the authentic local details that make these books so intriguing to me. For the most part, I avoid portraying much violence in my own stories (they are romances, after all), while these mysteries are full of dark and disturbing scenes. They also don’t have “happily ever after” endings. Indeed, sometimes the endings are downright grim.

I suspect that my preference for reading books that are nothing like what I write is a little weird. When I read interviews with writers and they discuss their reading habits, they may mention stories that are a bit different than what they write, but not usually the complete opposite. I’ve tried to analyze why my tastes are this way. Maybe it’s because when I’m writing, I’m living in that world on a much more intense level than when I’m reading. When I’m writing as a character, I really am that character, and I don’t want them to endure too much violence, pain or suffering because I don’t want to experience it myself on that intense level.

It’s one thing to be exposed to darkness and evil vicariously. Another to feel like you’re actually living it. In the books I read, I identify and care about a lot of the characters, but I don’t become them the way I do my characters. I can read a gritty mystery and go on an exciting, vicarious ride. But I don’t envision my real self in that world.

I’ve heard other authors complain that writing fiction takes away from enjoying reading it. You become too critical of technical details, too aware of pacing flaws and places where the characterization is weak, etc. You stop reading as a reader and start reading like an editor. For the most part, I’m pretty forgiving and tolerant of these things. If I find the story compelling, I can ignore a lot of issues that might bug some of my writer friends.

At least when I’m reading non-romances. When I read a romance, it’s much harder for me to turn off the editor in my head. And even if I have no problems with the writing itself, it’s hard for me not to think about how I would write the story. That puts a distance between me and the story and makes it hard for me to really immerse myself in the book. More specifically, other authors’ fantasies are not my fantasies, and that is ultimately a very important component of the romance reading experience.

Despite all these things, I plan to keep trying to read more romance. After I get through the two mysteries and the historical novel I’m waiting to come in at the library, and that book I just ordered that sounds so interesting and well… you know the rest.

What about you other writers out there? Is there a big discrepancy between your reading and writing interests?

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Mary GillgannonMary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook.

Old Writer, New Tricks

By Mary Gillgannon

I’m what I call an intuitive or “into the mist” writer.  I have a general idea of what the story is about, but I don’t really plot. I’m also a linear writer. I start from the beginning and keep going on the rough draft until I reach the end. Between “non-plotting” and writing straight through, I usually end up with a complete mess and then have to go back and rewrite extensively to get a coherent and compelling story. It was pretty typical that for a 120,000 word novel, I’d write about 30,000 extra words. For my 160,000-word historical novel, I probably wrote 300,000!

About five years ago, I decided I wasn’t up to all that floundering and struggle and wasted words. I was going to learn to plot. I attended workshops, read books and talked to other writers about their plotting process. It all sounded good to me… until I sat down and tried to do it. Nothing happened. No story ideas came. My mind went blank and my muse refused to speak to me.

So, I went back to “writing into the mist” and writing linearly. I seemed to be getting better at it with my romances. But when I tried to write a fantasy series, I ended up with a 200,000 word book that needs to be about half that. Not to mention, I can’t market the series yet because I don’t know what happens in the second book, let alone the third and fourth. (I know. George R.R. Martin probably doesn’t really know where his series is going either. But he’s clearly better at this stuff than me.)

The feeling that there has to be a better way keeps gnawing at me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve found it with my latest project. It’s a fantasy romance that I first started years ago. Because I was trying to sell on proposal back then, I actually wrote a very rough synopsis for this book. I started writing based on the synopsis, and after a few chapters, inevitably, the plot began to change. But then I did something different. I didn’t keep writing. I went back and started revising the synopsis to fit the story. As I did that, I realized there were lots of story questions I hadn’t addressed. So I went back and rewrote parts of the first few chapters. In the process, the whole story became clearer to me. For once, I wasn’t writing “into the mist”. I could actually see where I was going.

I’ve decided I would keep up with this new technique with this book. I’m beginning to think that maybe the problem isn’t that I don’t plot, but that I keep writing forward even when I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe if I try to plot as I write the book and fix things as I go along, I won’t end up with such a disaster at the end.

I’ve been writing novels for over twenty years. It would be really exciting if I finally figured out a better way to do it!

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Mary GillgannonMary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook.